Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Notes From A Big Country - Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson has the rare knack of being out of his depth wherever he goes - even (perhaps especially) in the land of his birth. This became all too apparent when, after nearly two decades in England, the world's best-loved travel writer upped sticks with Mrs Bryson, little Jimmy et al. and returned to live in the country he had left as a youth.

Whether discussing the dazzling efficiency of the garbage disposal unit, the exoticism of having your groceries bagged for you, the jaw-slackening direness of American TV or the smug pleasure of being able to eat your beef without having to wonder if when you rise from the table you will walk sideways into the wall, Bill Bryson brings his inimitable brand of bemused wit to bear on that strangest of phenomena - the American way of life.

So, I was between books and facing a long haul flight to the States from good old Blighty and needed a book that would enable me to dip in and out and keep me relatively sane in what is essentially a glorified bus! Because of my destination I decided to tackle Notes From a Big Country (for the umpteenth time, I might add) by Bill Bryson. Being written in the form of short articles - originally written for one of the English Sunday papers - it is perfect fodder for a person who is facing severe jet-lag and finding it hard to concentrate on the plot of a regular book.

Obviously, since it is a series of articles, it will be hit or miss. Some of the articles seem to be tossed out with little thought or relevance. There is an additional problem with timeliness - some of the events Bryson talks about date the book horribly.

On the whole, though, this book is tremendous fun, with a series of sparkling and very amusing essays on matters as diverse as the British vs. US postal system; whether Thanksgiving truly is the best holiday; and the art of shopping in the States. Some of the articles even manage to tug on the heart strings - the one in particular that springs to mind here is when Bryson talks about his first son flying the nest.

I adore the irreverent humour and sense of wonder that Bryson brings to many of his articles, whether talking about the enormous variety of breakfast cereals on offer or the fact that Christmas lights NEVER EVER work. His humour works for me because it often springs from nowhere and leaves you giggling in surprise.

I would warn that, if you're anything like me, this book might be a little tough on your neighbours while on public transport thanks to the unattractive snorts of laughter you will be emitting at regular intervals!

Well worth picking up for light entertainment and a joyous observational journey on the differences between the States and, well, everywhere else.


  1. I've probably read that book about four times now, and aside from a little bit of badly-done research, it's always an enjoyable read. I think it speaks to me especially given that I live in Canada but was born in the UK, so I've got a bit of "both worlds" running in my mind. Sometimes I too feel like an outside in the country I've spent the majority of my life in, and Bryson's commentary on things that others take for granted hit home more than once.

    My favourite books of Bryson's are his language books, like "Made in America" and "The Mother Tongue". Any man who can throw so much humour into books about the history of the English language is a man who clearly appreciates just what language IS. If you're interested in linguistics or history at all, you might want to check those two out as well.

  2. I love those kinds of books, Kurt Vonnegut has that effect on me. I'm sure I drive people crazy when I read him. :)

  3. Thanks for the comments guys! It's nice to know that these reviews are appreciated alongside my standard fantasy stuff and whatnot!

    I haven't tried Bryson's language books, so I might have to pick me up a copy :-)